Cracks in the Common Core Coalition: On the Right, Left, and Now in the Center, Too

In a speech in Manhattan this morning, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten called for a "moratorium" on high stakes attached to Common Core tests. She complained that in New York state, students sat for new tests this spring, before schools received promised new curriculum materials from the city and state, which are expected to come in the fall. A multi-state survey of AFT members found that most believe they have not received adequate professional development or instructional materials aligned to the new standards.

Weingarten said Common Core-driven tests like the ones rolled out this month in New York, created by the Pearson company, should not yet count toward student graduation requirements, and that students' scores on these exams should not yet be weighed as part of their teachers' evaluations. (In New York, students' state test scores are set to count for 20 percent of a teacher's rating.) And she noted that while the federal government has spent $350 million to help fund the development of Common Core tests, it has not devoted any specific funding streams to teacher training on how to use the new standards in the classroom. She said:

I am proposing that states and districts work with educators to develop clear tasks and a clear timeline to put in place the crucial elements of Common Core implementation. And until then, the tests should be decoupled from decisions that could unfairly hurt students, schools and teachers.

When scores drop as sharply as they’re expected to, it will send an inexcusable message to parents: Your child is far from meeting the standards. And she needs to meet the standards to get into college. But we don’t have a plan, and nobody’s accountable for getting her there. Except for the teacher, who hasn’t been trained. And you can just imagine how that teacher feels. …

Let me be clear about what this moratorium is and isn’t: We aren’t saying students shouldn’t be assessed. We aren’t saying teachers shouldn’t be evaluated. We’re not saying that there shouldn’t be standardized tests. We’re talking about a moratorium on consequences in these transitional years.

We're currently seeing cracks in the incredibly broad coalition — made up of teachers' unions, test manufacturers, the vast majority of states, and standards and accountability hawks — that originally came together in 2009 to design the Common Core. The Common Core has always been controversial on the margins. On the left, activist parents charge that standardized testing degrades the curriculum. On the right, opposition from senators like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, as well as from Republican state legislators, has centered around a sort of purposeful misreading of the federal government's involvement in the Core. While it's true the Obama administration, through Race to the Top, provided financial incentives to states that adoped the Core, the Department of Education had nothing to do with writing the standards themselves, a process initiated by the National Governors' Association and a group of state school superintendents. Those folks hired the consulting group Student Achievement Partners to write the standards, and in doing so, SAP consulted with the unions, teachers, academic experts, and testing companies. Much of the funding came from private philanthropy. 

What's more problematic to implementation are the differences emerging between strong supporters of the Core on the center-right and center-left. Since states, districts, and schools have a lot of flexibility in how they implement the standards — what specific novels to assign, which math textbooks to use — standardized testing was always meant to be the main way teachers would be pressured to adopt the Core faithfully. Weingarten is urging a slower approach to accountability, asking that teachers and students have time to adjust to the higher expectations over the course of multiple years. But other Common Core fans, like Jeb Bush, gladly accept the very prospect Weingarten resists: that many, many more children will "fail" Core-aligned tests. As I noted last week, both Bush and one of the Core's leading architects, David Coleman, told me last year that until students, parents, and teachers realize where they stand against these higher expectations, as measured by tests, it will be impossible to move the country forward on school improvement more broadly.

This repesents a deep divide. Will disappointing, high-stakes results on Common Core tests scare us into meaningful school reform? Or should the process be slower, more holistic, and less high pressure? 

A third possibility — and probably the most likely one, judging from the history of American education reform — is that states will set cut scores for passing these tests lower, in order to insulate more students from accountability. Meanwhile, teachers will continue to implement the Core in an uneven way, adjusting to the materials and professional development they have personally received, which varies greatly from school to school.

3 thoughts on “Cracks in the Common Core Coalition: On the Right, Left, and Now in the Center, Too

  1. Glen Dalgleish

    Interesting that you state “…has centered around a sort of purposeful misreading of the federal government’s involvement in the Core”. I would argue that your purposeful misreading of the fact that it was initiated by the National Governors’ Association and a group of state school superintendents is as bad as what you are claiming the republicans are doing. Achieve Inc was mostly behind this with the funding of the Gates Foundation and they used NGA and the CCSSO, who are by the way trade organization with no legal authority to write national standards, to introduce their work. This then gave Arne Duncan, yes the DoE, the opportunity to claim it was state driven, a claim you echo without facts. Misreading indeed.

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  2. Bruce William Smith

    Governor Bush and Mr. Coleman are right: until Americans see where their own individual children and students stand in relation to other children of the same age around the world, they will continue to believe that their kids are all right, when in fact American parents are usually too comfortable (and uninformed) about the relevant reality. This does not mean that the test results shouldn’t constitute merely one (important) facet of a more holistic view of each student, or that we shouldn’t be reducing the pressure that young children, and their teachers, have been receiving on account of statewide tests — we should; but the worst possibility of the three mentioned, that states might lower passing scores, which are fundamental to the establishment of standards, and which has happened not just around our country but in other ones as well around the world, needs to be prevented; and a nongovernmental, impartial body, acting in a manner similar to the OECD for PISA or the IEA for TIMSS, can help us to achieve that.

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